Scene Through Wood: A Century of Modern Wood Engraving @ the Heath Robinson Museum

The British Society of Wood Engravers (SWE) was founded just over 100 years ago, in 1920, by leading artists including Lucien Pissarro and John Nash. Its aim was to promote wood engraving for modern artists.

This lovely exhibition, ‘Scene Through Wood’, was first shown at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 2020 to commemorate the Society’s centenary. Now, a few years later, it has come to the small but beautifully formed Heath Robinson Museum in Pinner, north west London and you really should go and see it.

‘Scene Through Wood’ brings together about 70 wood engravings, from the 19th and 20th centuries, from the Society of Wood Engravers’ collection as well as private collections, and by artist engravers around the world, including Britain, Europe, Russia, Canada, the USA, China and Japan. It is curated by noted engraver and artist Anne Desmet (RA).

The exhibition amounts not only to a visual feast of some of the finest wood engravings from the past 100 years, but introduces you to some 50 not-so-well-known artists who have specialised in this format. And, as you slowly patiently make your way round the exhibits, you begin to get a feel of the great variety of styles and approaches which are possible in this monochrome format.

‘The Cyder Feast’ by Edward Calvert (1828)

Sections

The exhibition is arranged into a number of sections and so is my review.

1. Beginnings

‘Beginnings’ starts with by far the earliest piece in the exhibition, ‘Christ in Limbo’ by Albrecht Dürer from 1510. Dürer was one of the first European artists to use printmaking and produced produced around 346 woodcuts during his career.

But woodcuts are different from wood engravings, and wood engraving, apparently, has the distinction of being one of the only art forms to have been invented in Britain. By the 1770s Thomas Bewick was engraving end-grain boxwood using bespoke tools. His ‘invention’ quickly spread around the industrialised world and was adapted for a variety of purposes, commercial and fine arts. The first display case contains a selection of steel engraving tools, and a roundel of end-grain boxwood the surface of which has been ground perfectly smooth and level and ready for engraving.

Put very simply, the artist etches a design into the hardwood which is then inked. The wood which has remained etched takes the ink and this part is printed on paper when the inked block is applied to it. The parts of the wood which have been gouged, striated, etched or scratched do not take the ink and thus show up white in the print.

Early experimenters included the prolific poet-artist, William Blake, Edward Calvert and the wonderful painter Samuel Palmer, all represented here. When I was a teenager I read the Complete William Blake, memorised the Songs of Innocence and Experience, devoted many hours to memorising Blake’s convoluted personal mythology. But later, in my 30s, I found myself warming very much to the delicate, mysterious magic of Samuel Palmer’s paintings. ‘Harvesters under a Crescent Moon’ is the only wood engraving Palmer ever made and it’s tiny.

‘Harvesters under a Crescent Moon’ by Samuel Palmer (1826)

Size matters

This brings me to a general point about the exhibition as a whole, which is size. It would be easy for your initial impression of the exhibition to be that all the works are a bit samey. Almost all the exhibits are black and white. And they also tend to be on the small size, A4 size or so. Half a dozen are strikingly bigger than this but plenty are smaller and some are minuscule.

Hence the gallery supplies a number of magnifying glasses because the thing about wood prints, as a general rule, is that you really have to lean and and study them. Oil paintings and watercolours can afford to be on a huge scale and make great sweeping gestures of colour which immediately leap out and grab you. Almost all these wood engravings, by contrast, require you to lean in and pay attention.

2. A sense of scale

In fact the second section in the exhibition is called ‘A sense of scale’ and explores the question of size, exploring the range of sizes possible with wood engravings, juxtaposing the tiny Samuel Palmer with the biggest thing in the show, ‘Mirage I’ (2014) by the Chinese artist Shi Lei. From a distance the Shi Lei piece looks like the face of a man wearing glasses regarding us with a withering look, except that the entire image appears to be bubbling and melting, maybe some post-nuclear holocaust atrocity.

‘Mirage I’ by Shi Lei (2014)

Only when you look closely do you realise that a) it’s a composite image which has been created out of nine separate blocks  and then stuck together, and b) that the overall image is, rather in the style of Salvador Dali, itself made up of figures of writhing naked bodies. Because of the uneasy, rather sickening effect, this was by far my least favourite image in the exhibition.

David Gentleman

In fact, talking of size and scale, arguably both the largest and the smallest engravings cited in the show were produced by the same artist, David Gentleman (born 1930), one of the most successful commercial artists of his day. Because among his huge range of work are:

1. Postage stamps commissioned by Royal Mail, in this case a 9p Christmas stamp from 1977 showing a partridge in a pear tree.

Christmas stamp by David Gentleman (1977)

2. And the huge mural lining the platforms at Charing Cross underground station in London. I doubt if many other wood engravings have been reproduced at such scale.

Mural at Charing Cross underground station by David Gentleman (1979)

3. The theatre of life

This is followed by a wall of images all falling under the loose heading ‘The theatre of life’. This brings together images of types of people or human activities, such as:

  • Peter Blake’s engravings of four characters from a circus (1974 to 78)
  • dark and powerful images from the 1930s depicting the Great Depression in America Clare Leighton
  • images of ‘Bowlplayers in Sunlight’ by Gwendolen Raverat (1922), the first woman engraver to come to prominence

Comparing and contrasting these figures made you realise that engraving does best when it goes with the tendency to stylisation intrinsic in the form. Trying to achieve the sinuous curves and slow of organic objects is a big ask for an art form which works with chisels and incising tools, and so I thought a piece like Point-to-Point by Rachel Reckitt (1936) didn’t really work. Or I didn’t like the way it worked. By contrast in Le Sporting Bar (1929), it seemed to me that Ian Macnab had worked with the grain of the form to create a kind of semi-geometric stylisation which I enjoyed. But then I love Wyndham Lewis, the Vorticists and all varieties of geometric modernism.

The standout piece in this section was a much more recent work, ‘Fallen Angel’ (2006) by Hilary Paynter, not particularly geometric, certainly not a thing of hard edges and angles, a showcase of how soft and mysterious and rather wonderful a wood engraving can be.

Fallen Angel’ by Hilary Paynter (2006)

4. Construction and destruction

Following on from this is a section titled ‘Construction and destruction’. If we’ve just been looking at human recreation, sports and leisure time, here are people at war, or coping with fires and floods. It includes:

  • ‘Minesweeping Gear’ by James Taylor Dolby (1947)
  • ‘Northern Waters’ (1942) and ‘Sharp Attack’ (1944) by Geoffrey Wales
  • ‘Mill Fire’ (1997) and ‘Deluge’ (2000) by Ian Corfe-Stephens
  • ‘Shot’ (2010) by Chris Pig where ambulancemen and bystanders crowd round someone lying on a stretcher who has, apparently, just been shot

For me the standout piece, and one which typifies many of the strengths of wood engraving, is a marvellous piece by Hilary Paynter, titled ‘Tree with a Long Memory’ (2003).

Tree with a Long Memory’ by Hilary Paynter (2003)

This is a classic example of the need to lean in and look closer at a wood engraving. The more I looked, the more the piece delivered up its wonders. For a start it took me a few moments to realise that the shape of the image represents the trunk of a mature tress which has been sliced across, as when a tree is cut down with a chainsaw revealing the rings of growth for you to count.

Anyway, only when I really peered into the image did I realise that it contains a wonderful set of symbols of humanity’s achievements over the past 3,000 years or so, namely Stonehenge, the Parthenon and a Roman amphitheatre (at the bottom), what might be a Renaissance encampment such as the Field of the Cloth of Gold hanging upside down in the middle, on the left rows and rows of white crosses as in a First World War cemetery, in the top left a jet plane looping the loop, and on the top right the sinewy shape of a 6-lane motorway snaking into the distance. And on the lower right-hand side the timeless labour of working the land, ploughing and sowing which was once done by horse-drawn ploughs, now by diesel-driven machinery, but the eternal round of sowing and reaping which is the basis of all civilisation, the row upon row of furrows echoing the growth lines of the tree.

5. The built environment

Next up is a section titled ‘The built environment’. Given the form’s predisposition to angles and edges, buildings, rooftops, windows, streets of terraced houses and so on are tailor made subjects for engraving. Thus I loved the very first piece in this section, ‘Yorkshire’ (1920) by the noted Modernist artist Edward Wadsworth.

‘Yorkshire’ by Edward Wadsworth (1920)

This section is dominated by an impressive set of unusually large engravings of a view of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, each coloured differently, by the exhibition curator, Anne Desmet. Desmet is on record as saying the sequence was in part inspired by Monet’s set of paintings of the facade of Rouen Cathedral at different times of day. They can be viewed on Desmet’s website.

This section also contains some interesting technical experiments by Desmet. ‘Babel Tower Revisited’ (2018) is round and uses slightly convex glass cover so give the impression the image is bulging out into the room. ‘Fires of London’ (2015) in which slender prints of engravings of the Great Fire have been cut out to form narrow tall images and glued onto 18 razor shells.

It also contains the striking (and tinted) ‘Petra I’ by Geri Waddington (2004).

‘Petra I’ by Geri Waddington (2004)

6. Storytelling (books)

Wood engraving is nowadays both an independent, creative art form and a versatile medium for commercial images. A display case demonstrates how the tendency to simplify and abstract subject matter can result in very striking images which can be used for book illustration. There are illustrations of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner (by Garrick Palmer, 1994) and Goblin Market (Hilary Paynter, 2003).

More commercially, editions of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books have been printed with dramatic wood engraved front covers by Andrew Davidson (2013). And, best of all, the fabulous engravings produced by Chris Wormell for Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ sequence of novels, which are outstanding.

‘La Belle Sauvage.’ Cover illustration for ‘The Book of Dust’ by Philip Pullman (2017) based on a wood engraving by Chris Wormell

This section also contains:

  • ‘The Crucifixion’ (1927) by the famous poet-artist David Jones
  • ‘The Entombment’ (1930) by Claughton Pellew
  • ‘The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God’ (1932) by John Farleigh, for George Bernard Shaw
  • Illustrations for ‘The Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta’ (1933) by Eric Ravilious
  • a vivid scene from ‘Moby Dick’ (1974) by Garrick Palmer
  • Illustrations for ‘Erewhon’ (1932) by Blair Hughes-Stanton

And another series or set of images (cf Desant’s Brooklyn Bridge), this time a set of 9 highly detailed studies of a bust of the Roman emperor ‘Marcus Aurelius’, depicted with the opposite of abstraction, with astonishing photographic accuracy by Simon Brett (2002).

Another part of the display tells us that wood engravings have been used to create entirely text-free books of illustration, where the reader is free to verbalise a sequence of images, exemplified by the work of the Belgian artist, Franz Masereel, whose text-free books of narrative images – such as ‘The Idea’ and ‘Story Without Words’, both on display here – were very popular, especially in Germany, during the era of silent movies, and can be counted among the forerunners of modern graphic novels.

I’d never really given it much thought but those labels you get which you can write your name on and stick in the front page of good quality books, bookplates, often feature exquisite miniature wood engravings. Examples included here are by Joan Hassall, 1946, Vladimir Kortovitch, 1990, and Grigory Babitch, 2004.

7. Abstraction and detail

This section is dominated by a work by a very distinctive artist who produced woodcuts and engravings of wonderful, beguiling and mind-bending visual puzzles, the Dutch artist Maurits Cornelis Escher.

‘Fish and Scales’ by Maurits Cornelis Escher (1959)

8. The natural world

This is the biggest section, with the most examples, and so a fascinating opportunity to analyse and compare the very wide range of wood engraving styles available. There’s a ‘Stonehenge’ from 1962 by Gertrude Hermes which looks as if the sky is made out of angrily cross-hatched icebergs.

By complete contrast is ‘Dead Trees – Sheppey’ by Monica Poole (1976) where the trees look as if they’re touching a sky which is like an inverted pond, with dynamic ripples spreading out from the trees’ touch in a surreal manner which echoes Paul Nash in the 1930s.

There are also two different artist’s views of a car headlights at night illuminating a road scene through the windscreen, ‘Through the Windscreen’ (1929) by Gertrude Hermes and ‘The Night Drive’ (1937) by Joan Hassall.

Probably my favourite work was ‘Long-tailed Duck and Whiting’ by Colin See-Paynton (1988), possibly because the fish look identical to the fish in Tintin and the Red Sea Sharks. Aren’t the ducks extraordinarily realistic? From that level of precise naturalistic detail to another large and pleasing, semi-abstract image, in the slightly mysterious Paul Nash style:

‘Under water’ by Monica Poole (1986)

Go see and enjoy this lovely, fascinating, eye-opening and deeply pleasurable exhibition.

The video (6’24”)

Anne Desmet RA is one of only three wood engravers to be elected as Academicians in the Royal Academy’s nearly 250-year history. In this video she takes us through each step in creating a wood engraving, from tracing the original drawing through to printing a first proof.


Related links

Other exhibitions at the Heath Robinson Museum

Enid Marx: Print, Pattern and Popular Art @ the House of Illustration

The House of Illustration has three galleries and three exhibitions on at any given time.

Just opened in the Main Gallery is an impressive retrospective of textile designer, printmaker and illustrator Enid Marx (1902-1998). Marx was at the Royal College of Art in 1922, where her contemporaries included Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden, and together with the latter in particular she helped to define the look and feel of mid-20th century commercial design.

Designs by Enid Marx

Designs by Enid Marx

The exhibition coincides with the 20th anniversary of Marx’s death and is the most comprehensive retrospective of her work mounted in the last 40 years. It brings together over 150 pieces from private and public collections, many displayed for the first time and is divided among the Main Gallery’s four rooms.

Room 4

Arguably the best way to start is to go to the smallest room (on the left) and watch the five-minute film about Enid which is playing in a loop and which features contributions from fellow print-makers, friends and art scholars.

The film introduces you to what I think are two important elements: she was not a fine artist working in oil or sculpture to make big depictions of the human condition or portraits or nudes; the reverse: she was first and foremost a textile or fabric designer who also tried her hand at designing book jackets, book illustration, posters, stamps, train seats and so on.

And this is the second thought – the diversity of her output. According to a friend in the film she was never happier than when drawing pen in hand, or using the tools to carve out of wood or lino a block for printing.

Room 1

Room one is dominated by a huge blow-up of a drawing of Enid’s studio at number 43 Ordance Road, St John’s Wood, made by her friend Eric Ravilious, which has been printed onto the gallery wall. This sets the tone of a kind of cluttered, homely workspace, of the makeshift setup of a young artist just setting out to forge a career.

Installation view of Enid Marx at the House of Illustration showing the wall-sized sketch of Marx's flat by Eric Ravilious, wall cases of fabrics and a central display of tools. Photo by Paul Grover

Installation view of Enid Marx at the House of Illustration showing the wall-sized sketch of Marx’s flat by Eric Ravilious, wall cases of fabrics and a central display of tools. Photo by Paul Grover

The room introduces us to ten or so large fabric designs, mostly assembled (if I’ve understood this correctly) by carving the original pattern into a woodblock, then inking the block and imprinting it on ready-made fabric, then re-inking the block and printing the section of fabric next to it, and so on, to make repeat-pattern prints. This is a very laborious hand process which made the resulting fabrics quite expensive.

The first of the ten display cases in the exhibition contains the very tools that Marx used in her craft, including a folding holder for wood cutting tools, an ‘ogee’ and ‘spook’ wood block, as well as an invitation to one of her earliest shows, a studio card, a dye recipe book copied out laboriously by hand, textile samples, an order book and so on. All very practical, very business like.

Being a woman

Enid suffered various professional disadvantages from being a woman. At the Royal College of Art she was banned from the Design department where the wood carving equipment was kept, although Ravilious used to sneak her in after hours. She was refused a diploma at the painting school because she was considered too modern. At various points in later life she was blocked out of commissions or not given adequate technical information to fulfil them.

I expected an emphasis on this part of her story, given the domination of art scholarship and art curation by women who feel they have to bring out the grievances and injustices experienced by all women in the past.

Enid Marx working on a textile design post-1945

Enid Marx working on a textile design post-1945

What was more interesting because less expected was the way one of the historians in the film pointed out that Marx benefited from the growth of women-led shops and businesses in the 1920s and 30s.

After the Great War women emerged more independent, with greater spending power. Thus shops with all kinds of domestic and fashionable goods sprang up to cater for this new market, and alongside them, a network of new women designers, craftspeople, businesswomen and so on.

Thus after leaving the Royal College of Art, Enid became assistant to Phyllis Barron and Dorothy Larcher who were reviving the old technique of using hand-carved blocks of wood. Her work from the 1930s was popular with clients such as the women-led craft shops Dunbar Hay and the Little Gallery.

Her talent was eventually to become widely acknowledged. Among other accolades, she was the first female engraver to be awarded the title of Royal Designer for Industry.

This first room, then, gives us a basic introduction to her life, to some examples of the large, repeat-pattern fabric designs, explained how there was a new market for them in the 1920s, and shows us some of the tools of the trade.

Room 2

Room two is the biggest room and contains an impressive variety of her design output from the 1920s to the 1960s. Where to start?

In 1929 she made her first designs for the covers of books by Chatto and Windus, initially as wood engravings, then as lithographic or line-block reproduction in colour. She designed book covers for the Curwen Press throughout the 1930s and in 1939 won a contract to design the covers of some of the new King Penguins, starting with Some British Moths by Norman Riley in 1945.

Small and discreet and dignified, these stylishly patterned covers are objects of great beauty.

Book cover designs by Enid Marx

Book cover designs by Enid Marx

In 1937 London Underground commissioned young designers to submit ideas for new seating moquettes, ‘a thick pile fabric used for carpets and upholstery’. The design had to be woven into the fabric not printed on top of it, as Enid had previously done, so this represented a whole new set of technical challenges.

The exhibition includes a couple of big panels showing two of the fabrics she eventually designed and London Transport purchased. Imaginatively, the curators of the exhibition have embedded these samples in a wall-sized blow up of a black and white photo of an old Tube train carriage, showing them in situ.

Installation view of Enic Marx at the House of Illustration showing her designs for Tube train seat covers

Installation view of Enid Marx at the House of Illustration showing her designs for Tube train seat covers placed over an enlarged b&w photo of an old Tube carriage

In 1944 Enid was recruited to the Board of Trade Utility Furniture Committee to design curtain and seating fabrics to be sold at a fixed, affordable price to owners of bombed-out homes. She created 30 upholstery and curtain fabric designs using limited wartime supplies of yarn.

In 1951 she was invited to design the stamps to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. Next to these rather staid creations, featuring an orthodox photobust of the Queen are displayed the much more funky set she designed 20 years later around the theme of medieval English embroidery.

Stamps designed by Enid Marx, 1976

Stamps designed by Enid Marx, 1976

In 1957 Enid was commissioned to design two London Underground posters featuring London Zoo and Whipsnade Zoo. Many of her earlier designs and illustrations had featured animals, birds and fish so this was a great pleasure for her. The results are funky sharp prints full of colour.

The end wall of room two features a dozen or so prints made from woodcuts showing she was a real mistress of this technique. Her woodcuts were used for book illustrations and covers, catalogues, book plates and repeat patterns. There are several impressive big woodcuts of cats and one of sunflowers. To my mind they echo the ‘primitive’ technique of some German Expressionists but utterly transformed into a world of charm and feminine tranquility.

The Main Gallery at the House of Illustration displaying Marx's prints (on the far wall), London Underground posters (on the right wall) and books and children's illustrations (in the display cases)

The Main Gallery at the House of Illustration displaying Marx’s prints (on the far wall, left), London Underground posters (on the right wall) and books and children’s illustrations (in the display cases)

Some of the display cases give abundant evidence of the fun she had designing ‘chapbooks’ (cheaply produced booklets), quiz books, story books and so on for children. These were ideal for wartime rationing conditions. She created a couple of sheets of paper titled Menagerie which contained the outlines of animals which could be cut up and folded together to make 3-D toys. She designed a 1939 chapbook with animal stories attached to each of the 26 letters of the alphabet.

Envelope for Menagerie Cut Out Game, Royle Publications (1947) by by Enid Marx. Courtesy of Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections

Envelope for Menagerie Cut Out Game, Royle Publications (1947) by by Enid Marx. Courtesy of Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections

She wrote a children’s story early in the Second World War titled Bulgy the Barrage Balloon, quickly followed by Nelson, the Kite of the King’s NavyThe Pigeon Ace and The Little White Bear.

Room 3

Room three offers an insight into Enid’s private life. In 1931 she met the historian Margaret Lambert and they were to spend the rest of their long lives together, known to their friends as ‘Marco’ and ‘Lambo’.

They shared an interest in British folk and traditional art, travelling far and wide and collecting a huge range of examples of popular and demotic art. This room is packed with charming and touching examples.

Installation view of Edith Marx at the House of Illustration showing some of her collection of folk art

Installation view of some of Edith Marx’s collection of folk art at the House of Illustration

It led to the book English Popular and Traditional Art, published in 1946, which aimed to showcase ‘the art which ordinary people have created for their own lives in contrast to the “fine arts” made for special patrons’.

Enid hoped that folk art would suggest a way ahead for English art which would reject the coldness and brutality of Modernism in favour of an art of ‘gaiety, delight in bright colours and a sense of well-balanced design.’

It’s a lovely note to end on, democratic, open to novelty and eccentricity, profoundly English and deeply affectionate, quietly loving, charming and humorous. Next to this entertaining bric-a-brac are hung three lovely landscape watercolours by Enid. It would have been nice to see more of those.

Marx, Bawden and Ravilious

The exhibition guide – and other sources you read about Enid – laments that she is not as well known as Ravilious and Bawden, both of whose reputations are currently undergoing a revival.

Having just visited the fabulous new exhibition of Edward Bawden at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, I can suggest two reasons for this. One is that – putting aside any assessment of the quality of their respective work – Ravilious in the 1930s, and Bawden much more so on the 1950s and 60s, were lucky enough / proactive enough, to be involved in book-length projects which promoted their work.

Enid certainly did illustrations for, and wrote her own children’s books, as well as making charming woodcuts for nursery rhymes and the alphabet, all of which are in evidence here. But Ravilious produced a set of illustrations for the classic 1938 book High Street (text by the architectural historian J. M. Richards), as well as sets of illustrations like his project to do watercolours of all the ancient figures carved out of the turf on the southern Downs, which had real mass appeal.

An illustration from High Street by Eric Ravilious and J.M. Richards

An illustration from High Street by Eric Ravilious and J.M. Richards

The large number of gorgeous cartoon-like pictures he did of the English high street or countryside can to this day be repackaged into books, calendars and cards, every one of which is immediately ‘grabby’.

Or compare Bawden’s reinvention of himself after the Second World War as a master of linocut printing, especially of architectural subjects, producing not only attractively stylised images of Brighton, or London landmarks or markets – but sets and series of them, which could be packaged up into books such as Bawden’s London, which also lend themselves to the world of calendars, postcards, posters and so on.

By contrast, although everything she did is striking and attractive, Enid doesn’t seem to have produced the same kind of sets or series designed to accompany a general text, in the way that Bawden and Ravilious did. Maybe this is one reason why her work then, and now, is less easily accessible.

Reason Number Two might be something to do with the nature of commercial and abstract design itself, which is that it works very well in situ, in context, but – taken out of context – loses power and impact.

Patterns and designs by Enid Marx at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

Patterns and designs by Enid Marx at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

Each one of Enid’s designs was made for a reason and context (curtain, chair cover, book cover) in which it made a statement. Each one is certainly worthy of study and admiration (I noticed the number of visitors to this exhibition with their noses right up against the glass, studying the detail of the designs). But if you take large numbers of her designs and place them next to each other, it tends to dissipate the impact rather than augment it. For some reason a whole load of snippets of design patterns placed together tend to neutralise each other.

By contrast, if you place Edward Bawden’s six big linocut prints of London markets together they complement and empower each other, making a strong cumulative statement.

Covent Garden by Edward Bawden (1967)

Covent Garden by Edward Bawden (1967)

Apart from the strong styling, each of Bawden’s illustrations has a kind of narrative – the element of human figures going about their work – which is both attractive, and builds up interest the more examples you see.

By contrast, Enid’s designs are not only subtle and small-scale (the book covers are only meant to be book sized) but mostly have no narrative or any kind of feature you can take and accumulate. Abstract patterns don’t tell a story.

Summary

To summarise, Enid a) mostly devoted herself to abstract designs, which, taken out of context as snippets, tend to appeal only to specialists, and don’t take well to being displayed en masse in a gallery. b) When she did do more figurative work – in her book illustrations and large prints – the illustrations were for books which remained obscure (wartime chapbooks, the children’s books which haven’t lasted) and the prints, lovely in themselves, don’t lend themselves to packaging up into books with strong themes or selling angles.

Her work, in other words, has a subtlety and understatement which doesn’t lend itself to the variety of commercial exploitation which that of Ravilious and Bawden does. And these may be some of the reasons why her work tends to be overlooked when 1930s and 1940s design and art is discussed.

Anyway, hopefully this lovely, uplifting exhibition will go a long way to raising her profile, winning her new fans and enthusiasts, and to making her name one to mention in the same breath as her contemporaries.

Co-curators

The co-curators are Dr Alan Powers, author of the first monograph on Enid Marx (Lund Humphries) and House of Illustration curator, Olivia Ahmad.

The House of Illustration

House of Illustration is the UK’s only public gallery dedicated solely to illustration and graphic art. Founded by Sir Quentin Blake it opened in July 2014 in King’s Cross, London. Its exhibition programme explores historic and contemporary illustration as well as the work of emerging illustrators, and is accompanied by a vibrant programme of talks and events.

Feline Phantasy. Linocut in four colours (1948) by Enid Marx © Estate of Enid Marx

Feline Phantasy. Linocut in four colours (1948) by Enid Marx © Estate of Enid Marx


Related links

Also currently on at the House of Illustration

Reviews of other House of Illustration exhibitions

Visions of War Above and Below @ Imperial War Museum London

The Imperial War Museum owns a collection of almost 20,000 artworks, including paintings, prints and drawings, sculptures and other works in photography, sound and film. Not only did it inherit the works of Official War Artists both famous and less well-known produced during the two world wars, but the Museum has also bought or commissioned works covering more recent and contemporary conflicts, including Northern Ireland, the Falklands, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The challenge for curators must be finding new and interesting ways of selecting from this vast portfolio. In the exhibition rooms on the third floor, opposite the Peter Kennard show, is a new exhibition of works illustrating the theme of war seen from above, and from below.

Not all the works are masterpieces. Not all the artists are masters. But it is a welcome opportunity to explore paintings which are rarely seen, and discover new names among the more familiar ones.

©IWM (Art.IWM ART 3082) Damascus and the Lebanon Mountains from 10,000 Feet by Richard C. Carline, 1920 Oil on canvas

Damascus and the Lebanon Mountains from 10,000 Feet by Richard C. Carline (1920) Oil on canvas © IWM

The theme of ‘Above’ tends is pretty consistently the view from airplanes and bombers (it might have been interesting to have something about Zeppelins or V1 and V2 rockets). For example, the large painting of Damascus and the Lebanon Mountains which dominates the first room, as well as Dogfight 1919 by Harold Wyllie and the hilarious Follow The Führer by Paul Nash.

Not really an art work at all, I was struck by a display of technical diagrams detailing how an Allied air raid should be carried out, the sequence of flares and then bombs which ought to be dropped in such and such a pattern over such and such a target. A subject harrowingly depicted in Len Deighton’s 1970 masterpiece, Bomber.

The works are predominantly realistic or at least figurative, with a few more contemporary exceptions such as Night Flight by Harry Hellawell.

© The artist's estate (Art.IWM ART 17165) Night Flight by Harry Hellawell, 1980 Mixed media on paper

Night Flight by Harry Hellawell (1980) Mixed media on paper © The artist’s estate

Peter Kalkhof’s Stealth is a large striking painting, the silver fragments representing the disorienting affect of stealth technology on enemy radar, which breaks up the solid image of the plane into scraps and shreds, as the painting does.

©The Artist’s Estate (Art.IWM ART 16824) Stealth by Peter Kalkhof, 1995 Acrylic on canvas

Stealth by Peter Kalkhof (1995) Acrylic on canvas © The Artist’s Estate

The theme of ‘Below’ is a bit more varied, with images of air raid shelters and submarines. David Bomberg is a favourite British modernist, all Vorticist angles, and is represented here by a vividly claustrophobic image of Canadian sappers, or combat engineers, at work.

©IWM (Art.IWM ART 2708) Sappers at Work Canadian Tunnelling Company, R14, St Eloi by David Bomberg, 1918 Charcoal on paper

Sappers at Work Canadian Tunnelling Company, R14, St Eloi by David Bomberg (1918) Charcoal on paper © IWM

Much though I warm to modernist and abstract art, for me the stand-out pieces were a couple of ravishingly realistic pastels of men in a submarine created by Francis Dodd in 1918. The detailing of the engines is powerfully conveyed but it is the faces of the men which leap out at you, astoundingly individuated, you can hear their voices, intuit their characters and movements. Stunning.

The Engine Room; Repairing a Diesel, HM Submarine by Francis Dodd RA (1918) Crayon and pastel on paper © IWM

The Engine Room; Repairing a Diesel, HM Submarine by Francis Dodd RA (1918) Crayon and pastel on paper © IWM

Next to Dodd’s two paintings were a couple of lithographs from Eric Ravilious’s Submarine series, made 20 years later, during the second war (Google images of Ravilious’s Submarine pictures) These were pretty much the lightest and most luminous works in this small but stimulating show. (Anyone who likes them is encouraged to go and see the wonderful exhibition of Ravilous at Dulwich Picture Gallery until 31 August.)

If you’re passing anywhere near the Imperial War Museum, this and the Peter Kennard show – both on the third floor and both free! – make for a packed, varied and very rewarding experience.

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Reviews of other Imperial War Museum exhibitions

Ravilious @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

This is a truly wonderful, inspiring and joyous exhibition, with a smile in every image. It brings together over 80 of Ravilious’s watercolours into six rooms packed with warmth, gentleness, love of the visible world and the English landscape.

Potted biography

‘Eric William Ravilious (22 July 1903 – 2 September 1942) was an English painter, designer, book illustrator and wood engraver. He grew up in Sussex, and is particularly known for his watercolours of the South Downs. He served as a war artist, and died when the aircraft he was on was lost off Iceland, aged 39.’ (Wikipedia)

Eric Ravilious, Anchor and Boats, Rye, 1938, Watercolour and pencil on paper, Private Collection

Eric Ravilious, Anchor and Boats, Rye, 1938, Watercolour and pencil on paper, Private Collection

Room 1 Relics and Curiosities

His father ran an antique shop in Eastbourne. He grew up among curiosities and quirks. He was intrigued from boyhood by broken teapots, bicycle wheels, derelict machinery, abandoned vehicles, very 1930s, very WH Auden:

The shafts are filled with water; the mosses grope over the washing-floor.
I look through the broken arms of waterwheels: I see lambs feeding.
Trucks lie overturned; an old rail patches a gap in the wall
Rain falls through the gaping roof of sheds; it falls on the obsolete inventions and structures…

But whereas Auden and his crew described the wrecks of industry laid waste by the great Depression, with the political implication of the need to overthrow the existing order (the world which produced Kim Philby and the other Cambridge spies), Ravilious’s images are always eccentric, domesticated, charming, but hinting at strange coincidences and meanings.

Well-suited to the illustrations he made for a number of books, the famous High Street (1938) with architectural writer James Richards, and the characteristically quirky The Hansom and The Pigeons: Being Random Reflections Upon the Silver Jubilee of King George V.

After experimenting with different media in his early 20s, with a sustained interest in mural designing, Ravilious finally settled on watercolour and pencil as his tools. The images in this first room are selected to show his interest in things: ships, biplanes, an abandoned caravan, a bus in a field, a propellor on a truck, funnels on a ship, ropes and lines of all descriptions: stays and hawsers and painters and cables and wires.

Eric Ravilious, Bomb Diffusing Equipment, c.1940, Watercolour and pencil on paper, Private collection, on long term loan to Towner, Eastbourne.

Eric Ravilious, Bomb Defusing Equipment, c.1940, Watercolour and pencil on paper, Private collection, on long term loan to Towner, Eastbourne.

The images are strong clear compositions, conveyed in firm outlines, with lots of cross-hatching and shading to create the sense of space and light and volume and perspective.

The comedy of objects and the pathos of objects, without their human owners somehow bereft, and yet also absurd. A tea set abandoned on a table.

Eric Ravilious, Tea at Furlongs, 1939, Watercolour and pencil on paper, The Fry Art Gallery

Eric Ravilious, Tea at Furlongs, 1939, Watercolour and pencil on paper, The Fry Art Gallery

2 Figures and Forms

Ravilious is famous for his landscapes, not for his people. He generally avoided the human figure and did hardly any portraits. The show does include a handful of sketches of faces and friends but by and large confirms this impression. The famous railway carriage is empty; the tea table is abandoned.

With the startling exception of a series of 10 lithographs he made of life on board a submarine (HMS Dolphin from Gosport, Hampshire), part of his war artist work. He went out on it for three weeks and the lithographs could not help but feature the sailors and officers who worked in this constrained, hot, stifling space. The vivid palette and the subject matter of these works reminded me of the over-colouring of the Technicolour movie, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954).

Precise and detailed as children’s book illustrations, they give the same warm memories as Edward Ardizzone’s images, the ones which illuminated the big hardback books my mother borrowed from the library. There are all kinds of nostalgias going on in Ravilious’s pictures.

3 Interiors

Bedrooms, sick bay, operations rooms, map rooms, corridors, train compartments – generally with windows opening out onto views.

Once the war started he did a series about operations rooms for the Battle of Britain and then of the new Control Room opened under London.

By far the most striking, and possibly Ravilous’s most famous image, is the Train Landscape (1939), which manages to be an interior and a landscape, at the same time.

Eric Ravilious, Train Landscape, 1940, Watercolour and pencil on paper, Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections

Eric Ravilious, Train Landscape, 1940, Watercolour and pencil on paper, Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections

Apparently, he planned to visit and paint every chalk figure in Britain and had made a good start when the project was curtailed by war. The image is powerful for all sorts of reasons, nostalgia being a big one: I remember the heaviness of the old wooden doors and the strength needed to pull down the windows. Along with that goes nostalgia for a clean landscape unruined by cars, traffic and industrial farming. And then the childlike simplicity, the book illustration clarity of the image. But there is also that element of mystery: where are the people? Why is the number 3 written so large, as if it’s an illustration in a counting book? Unlike Paul Nash’s overt surrealism, in Ravilious there is almost no sign of a strangeness which is only hinted at, which you could blink and miss.

4 Place and Season

He had a strong feel for landscape: this involved the colour of the soil, the types of trees and agricultural useage, the English seasons (mostly cloudy or raining). The commentary says he and his close friend, fellow illustrator and designer Edward Bawden, really did discuss the colour of the soil, the shape of the hills, all the geographic factors which give a landscape its specificity.

Ravilious is most associated with the chalk downland of the the Sussex Downs, epitomised, maybe, by this watercolour, The Downs in Winter (1934). Initially not the most striking of his images, the commentary spent a while explaining aspects of it, and I also benefited from overhearing two ladies discussing it, until I began to see deeper into it and depths opened like a door.

  • First, it’s winter. No glamour, no nostalgia for endless summers. It is cold and rainy, as England mostly is.
  • Apparently there as an Iron Age fort on top of the nearby hills, as there so often is in England, and that lends new meaning to the two prongs of the farm equipment, which go from light at the bottom to dark at the top until they seem like the horns of a bull, maybe of an Iron Age aurochs, a pagan image.
  • It is dark in the foreground and the hills are dark but the middle space of the field is light, like ploughed chalk fields often are, but also as English landscape is when the sun comes out from behind clouds.
  • For the first time I realised the importance in his technique of lines: of rows (here justified by the ploughing), of cross-hatching (in the sky to indicate rain), of the patchwork of fields created by a grid design. They aren’t the merciless lines of Modernism, they are curved and mellowed like the landscape, like the human body, but nonetheless lines are used all over his pictures to convey space and distance and perspective.

5 Changing Perspectives

Ravilious was very conscious of his predecessors in the attempt to paint the English landscape (in watercolour, of course, not oil) and therefore he and his circle were drawn not to the obvious oil painters Gainsborough or Constable, but to the more mystical landscapes of the watercolourist Samuel Palmer; and of course he had been taught by the great Paul Nash at the Royal College of Art.

Eric Ravilious, The Wilmington Giant, 1939, Watercolour and pencil on paper, ©Victoria and Albert Museum

Eric Ravilious, The Wilmington Giant, 1939, Watercolour and pencil on paper, ©Victoria and Albert Museum

Of course I started out looking at the giant carved into the chalk downland, but the audio-commentary drew my attention to the wire fencing, reminding me of the perennial appeal to Ravilious of man-made objects, human artefacts. And the wire obviously bespeaks 20th century realism – on any country walk you can’t help seeing lots of fences, wire, barbed wire and locks and meshes and grilles. But it went on to highlight the artful composition of the piece, the way the elements of reality are deployed: the lines of wire frame but don’t obscure the chalk man. And then the fence post leaning in from the right of the frame – actually the largest element in the composition – gives a subtle balance to the white and green on the left. The more you look at it the more dramatic it becomes.

The commentary quoted a contemporary reviewer who said the image makes you feel ‘the wiriness of the wire’ and that immediately became a catchphrase with which to explain much of the rest of the show. Where the wire joins the fence post it it is doubled back and retied round itself, something I’ve seen hundreds of times in real life, but never before captured in art or prose.

  • Cuckmere Haven (1939) Now I’d noticed the cross-hatching affect (in The Downs In Winter), I saw it everywhere: in the meadow in the foreground which looks like snakeskin; in the regular patterning of the flint stone wall running along the top of it, and in the mesh affect of the sky. Now I understand better why the central image of the serpentine river appears so clean and clear – because it is set against the dense cross-hatching of the top third and bottom third of the painting.
  • The Causeway, Wiltshire (1937) I feel I’ve walked there a hundred times, along a track carved into a gentle hillside which opens up a view down a valley.
  • The Westbury Horse (1939) Obviously the framing of the composition is vital, but now I notice the horizontal lines giving depth and perspective to the hillside the horse is carved out of, the different type of finer, vertical hatching used to imply grass in the foreground, the grid affect of the grey fields of the plain stretching out, and the long loose dark lines used to create the louring clouds in the sky. Now I’ve noticed it, I’m seeing the numerous different way he uses lines, shading, cross-hatching, mesh and grid patterns to create his affects.
Eric Ravilious, The Westbury Horse, 1939, Watercolour and pencil on paper, Private Collection, on long term loan to Towner, Eastbourne.

Eric Ravilious, The Westbury Horse, 1939, Watercolour and pencil on paper, Private Collection, on long term loan to Towner, Eastbourne.

Techniques he then took with him into his war work from 1939 till his tragically premature death in 1942.

  • Storm 1941 The cross-hatching conveying rain across sunlight.
  • Convoy Passing An Island The cross-hatching of the barrels, the metal struts of the wire fencing.
  • In a lot of these later works the composition is strongly based around straight lines leading into the distance, such as Rye Harbour – the line of telegraph wires, echoed by the differently-angled line of beacons on the right, in fact a large number of different lines going straight back to the vanishing point.
  • Hurricanes in Flight England as the familiar patchwork quilt below, but the interest isn’t in the smoothly streamlined WWII fighters, instead the composition is dominated by the twin wings of the biplane creating an emphatic sense of perspective, along with a very Ravilious-esque delight in their complex of struts and cables, intricate and quirky.
Eric Ravilious, Hurricane in Flight, c.1942, Watercolour and pencil on paper, Private Collection

Eric Ravilious, Hurricanes in Flight, c.1942, Watercolour and pencil on paper, Private Collection

6. Darkness and Light

A room devoted to Ravilious’s use of light effects. There was a big, early and uncharacteristic composition of fireworks in London, and some copying Samuel Palmer’s experiments with depicting landscapes lit by moonlight. But the mature works experiment with the impact of modern electric light at night, or with the sun appearing at harsh dawn (rather than romantic pink sunset). Apparently he liked to paint with the sun shining into his face, making the world praeternaturally clear, hard-edged, whited out.

  • Beachy Head An orgy of cross-hatching, shading and lines arranged to create a stark image of a lighthouse at night.
  • Paddle Steamers At Night
  • Norway 1940 The low Arctic sun making diamonds across the sky and sea.
  • The Lifeboat The sinuous curve of the lines of the lifeboat and the wiry wiriness of cables, hawsers and tackle scattered throughout the image.
  • Dangerous Work At Low Tide In these late works it is as if the cross-hatching and diamond affects of the pencil have become an end in themselves. Mind you, this image is best viewed from the other side of the room, from where it breathes the cold wintry light of dawn over wet sand.
Eric Ravilious, Dangerous Work at Low Tide, 1940, Watercolour and pencil on paper, © Ministry of Defence, Crown Copyright 2015

Eric Ravilious, Dangerous Work at Low Tide, 1940, Watercolour and pencil on paper,
© Ministry of Defence, Crown Copyright 2015

Ravilious’s images range from a kind of book illustration simplicity through warm evocations of the soft southern English landscape, innumerable sweet snapshots of 1930s England, to a mysterious few which hint at depths beneath the charm, an unknown meaning and purpose behind the smiling surfaces.

Related links


Other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

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